February 21, 2009

Serendipity - On Being a Professional Amateur

Maya's series continues this week with some thoughts about plotting (or a lack thereof). I love this post, because at one time or another, this happens to every writer.

Serendipity (or Writing by the Seat of Your Pants)
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Sample sentence: Baldric concocted a cunning plan to scare the killer lawn gnome into staying away from the cave entrance so he could sneak in.

Writers sometimes use expositional sentences like this to cover plot holes. We’re writing by the seat of our pants—making it up as we go along. We’re stuck for a way to keep the bad guy out of the cave and we got nothin’. Instead of using the opportunity for some clever plotting we wing a cunning, but undisclosed plan.

It’s a form of deus ex machina. Sometimes it’s a magical mechanism or previously unknown power or ability that saves the day. The weapon or talent the hero wields to kill the rogue lawn gnome does not exist until he needs it. The magic horse is simply there when the prince is stranded someplace nasty. The pebble in the heroine’s shoe was just a pebble until it became more convenient for it to be a magical pebble.

Ultimately, the reader wants to be able to divine from action and dialogue and story arc a set of subliminal rules that help him predict what might happen and to whom. Plot twists only really work with those rules in place. Why? Because if the writer just makes stuff up as she goes along, the reader can’t tell a plot twist from the other gyrations the writer is putting him through.

“Just ‘cause” explanations, convenient objects or talents and repetitive changes in direction not only lose the reader’s trust, they wear the reader out. Any plot device that is important to the main thread and resolution of your story needs to be carefully worked out at least in part onstage, where the reader can watch.

No, you can’t think of everything up front. Sometimes you have to ad lib or you have an epiphany that results in a new plot twist, but then you need to go back and lay the ground work for it in the earlier portions of your manuscript so that it is appropriately built up and foreshadowed. If you provide the hero with a magical, singing sword of hoary legend on page 250, the reader needs to at least get wind of the hoary legend somewhere around page 75.

And if your hero needs to slip into the cave unmolested by that rogue lawn gnome, impress the reader by having him come up with a cunning plan worthy of showing off.

Exercise: Look at your own fiction or at fiction you've recently read—do you see signs of what I describe above? See if you can’t come up with a dynamite plan to sneak your hero past the lawn gnome—then let the reader in on part of your (hero’s) thinking. It will not only engender trust, it could prove pretty darned entertaining.

February 10, 2009

Podcast #2 - Serial Story Lessons Learned - TimeSlingers.com

I hope you're enjoying Maya's series of posts about amateurish writing. Intersperced throughout her series, we're also running a number of podcasts about the serial story that Nathan and I are working on. "Blogging" a serial story every week can be really fun, but we've learned some lessons that you may find helpful, particularly if you're considering a similar storytelling strategy.

Last podcast, we discussed the TimeSlingers.com concept. I encourage you to check that out. It's a little over 5 minutes. Today's podcast focuses in on why we're updating the site, why it's currently on hold, and what we're doing to improve it.

Links mentioned in this post:
TimeSlingers.com (NOTE: as stated in the podcasts, TimeSlingers.com is currently on hold while we update the site)



February 04, 2009

Amateurish Writing - by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Last year I ran an interview with Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff and then posted a series of articles she wrote on amateurish writing. The series was very well received. She has a knack for addressing topics in an interesting and engaging way. So, when I heard that she had written more articles on the same subject, I jumped at the chance to include them here on Constructing Stories. Let me (and Maya) know what you think!

Barney as Narrator
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

More often than I'd like to tell I see manuscripts that read as if they were written for children, regardless of who the target audience is. Partly this is the result of what the writer chooses to tell the reader, partly it's how the writer tells it.

Sample paragraph:

Queen Amelia looked at the new ambassador. He looks familiar, she thought. What she didn't realize was that the new ambassador was a disguised Lord Roberto.

"I am your new ambassador, Majesty," announced Lord Roberto in his disguise.

What’s wrong with this perfectly grammatical set of sentences?

There's nothing grammatically wrong with the paragraph, although "announced Lord Roberto in his disguise" makes it sound as if he's saying the line up his sleeve. But it has other problems:

  • It's juvenile-sounding and awkward.
  • It gives the reader information the point-of-view character doesn't have.
  • It repeats the fact that the Queen has a new ambassador three times, and the fact that it's Lord Roberto in disguise twice.
  • It repeats certain words in the same or different forms: look, ambassador, new, disguise.
  • The dialogue tag ("he announced") tries to inject false excitement into the scene.

In most writing suffering from the "Barney Effect," the characters rarely say anything. They shout, yell, bellow, scream, shriek, squeal, exclaim and cry their dialogue. The writer thinks he's injecting excitement into the prose when, instead, he's creating something that reads like those old Dick and Jane books we had to slog through before we got to read something with a plot.

How do you avoid Barney-isms?

Two simple changes will help a great deal:

  • Don't make your characters shout unless they're trying to attract someone's attention across a crowded room, or scream unless they're absolutely terrified, or cry out unless they're shocked and amazed. Have them simply say things.
  • Don't pause to inform the reader of what the hero doesn't know. (Unless asides to the "audience" are part of the "schtick" of your story.)

Exercise: See if you can make the Sample Paragraph above sound like it belongs in an adult book of fiction. Embellish at will!